At Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Fay Kieffer spoke about June 21, 1941, a day she won’t forget.
It was the day German soldiers came into the ghetto in Poland where she and her family had been living, rounded up the residents and told them to split into two groups. The group Ms. Kieffer and her immediate family were part of was spared, but everyone in the other group, which included her grandparents and many friends, was killed.
“Within a few hours, 1,200 people were murdered. I heard every shot. Their screams remain in my memory forever,” she said.
Later that day, she and her family fled to another community. After her family members failed to return home after going out to work, Ms. Kieffer, then a teenager, tried to return to the home of a farmer who had sheltered the family briefly after the massacre. She did not know the way, she said, and hid in a wood, where two men beat and raped her. When the war ended, she was reunited with her mother at a displaced-persons camp in Germany. They moved to Canada through the Tailor Project, the first program that allowed Jewish refugees into the country after the Second World War.
The event at the temple on Wednesday was the first time Holocaust survivors and families linked to the Tailor Project and their descendants were assembled to celebrate the lives they’ve built in Canada. Ms. Kieffer is one of thousands of people that made the move through the project. Speakers at the gathering noted the importance of celebrating the lives of Jewish immigrants amid recent anti-Semitic acts in Canada and across the world.
Officially known as the “garment workers scheme,” the Tailor Project was led by Toronto-based Jewish businessman Max Enkin in 1948.
Larry Enkin, 90, is Max’s son, and he said that his father, along with a Canadian delegation, went to displaced-persons camps in Europe looking for people they could employ as tailors and rescue from the uncertainty of a postwar continent. More than 2,500 people were brought to Canada, and more than half of them were Jewish. It was a historic feat, because discriminatory immigration policy was a barrier for Jewish people looking to enter Canada at the time.
“[Max Enkin] knew that there was no country willing to take Jews after the Second World War,” Mr. Enkin said. “So when this opportunity came along, he was very, very committed to become part of it.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett were also in attendance. The Prime Minister spoke about the recent shooting at a synagogue in California in which one woman was killed, calling it “another painful reminder that anti-Semitism is not a thing of the past.” He added that Canada “has grown far more compassionate” in the years since past governments’ unfair treatment of Jewish refugees.
Larry Enkin spearheaded the search for descendants of the people brought to Canada through the Tailor Project. He had expected to find only a few names, but over a year and a half, he said, he was able to contact more than 80 families, totalling about 500 people.
Morris Cooper, 69, is a descendant, and was born in Canada after his family was brought over through the program. His father, Zvi Cooper, was a part of the clothing trade in Warsaw when the war broke out. Morris’s father and mother fled to Russia and his father sewed uniforms for the Russian officers in exchange for food. After the war, they went back to Poland to connect with extended family, only to find they had all been killed.
They lived in a displaced-persons camp in Austria until Zvi Cooper was recruited for the Tailor Project. The family arrived in Canada in 1948 and settled in Montreal, where the elder Mr. Cooper worked at a dressmaking factory.
Morris Cooper said that for him, the Toronto gathering is in remembrance of the family he’s never met – the aunts, uncles and grandparents who died in the Holocaust. But he added that given the recent wave of anti-Semitic activity, it was also a chance to recognize that “complacency” about anti-Semitism is “profoundly misplaced.”
Anti-Semitism has been steadily growing in Canada, according to reports.
Statistics Canada released data on Tuesday on hate crimes in the country in 2017. Crimes against the Jewish population increased 63 per cent – up to 360 in 2017 from 221 in 2016.
But despite the difficulties facing the Jewish population in Canada, Mr. Enkin said the event celebrates a pivotal time in the country’s relationship with its Jewish citizens.
“It was an important moment in the history of Canada as the beginning of what I think was the progression to being the fine country it is today.”